Pedro Martinez building hope in the Dominican
EL MAMON, Dominican Republic — Pedro Martinez wraps his long, elegant fingers around the handle of a Stanley hammer, grabs a nail, and starts pounding away. He’s helping rebuild a rusty tin-and-plywood shack for an old woman who raised six children there by herself.
For Martinez, who had five brothers and sisters, it is a flashback to poverty.
“That brought me back to my days as a kid,” said the three-time Cy Young Award winner. “Seeing the wood, seeing how rotten it is. The smell of the house, the wind coming into the house. Everything.
“It was just like being back at home as a young boy, except I had both parents there.”
Martinez has shown up, unannounced, to help the 20 high school students from the US and the Dominican who have joined together to do community service and play baseball, part of the Lindos Suenos (Beautiful Dreams) program run by the Red Sox.
“I love doing this,” he said. “Honestly, I love it.”
Spend a day with the wildly impulsive Martinez and a portrait emerges of a Pied Piper, committed to helping his fellow Dominicans, one kid at a time. The Pedro Martinez and Brothers Foundation, headquartered on the outskirts of Santo Domingo, helps impoverished youths in his hometown of Manoguayabo. He is as passionate about it as he is about baseball.
Jesus Alou, director of the Red Sox Baseball Academy, said Martinez has the heart of a lion.
“I admired him as a player, but to me he’s a better superstar as a human being,” said Alou. “Now he’s donating to that family several new, comfortable beds. That’s the way he is.
“Thank God I got to meet a man like him.’’
Martinez downplays the gift — you couldn’t rebuild the house and let them sleep on dirty, broken beds, he reasons. His wife, Carolina, who runs his foundation with him, calls Martinez “a bit of a softie.”
He believes in good karma.
“I believe you’ve got to have it,” said Martinez. “You’ve got to have something inside of you that tells you what to do. I guess you have a soul for a reason, to tell you what’s good and what’s not.
“You know what that lady told me? That she has been praying for six years since she became a Christian for God to help her with her house. I’m very proud of her.”
“I saw a kid chasing butterflies,” he says. “I used to do that, too. This time of year, all the kids on vacation would get together and pile up hundreds and hundreds of butterflies and then release them all at once.”
He pauses and lets the image hang in the air.
“I want to be an ambassador of hope,” he says.
On the road, the tropical sun beats down relentlessly from a cloudless sky. When an aggressive driver nearly sideswipes the Hummer on the highway, Martinez lowers the tinted window and tips his cap up. Road rage becomes royalty when the other driver recognizes him.
“Pedro, Pedro, great to see you,” the man gushes. “How is everything?”
Could he be elected president of the Dominican Republic?
“I’m not sure,” says Martinez. “A lot of people have a lot of respect for me, but I just don’t see myself getting into politics.”
He says he has time now for both baseball — he is a special assistant to Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington — and his foundation. He is also writing a book on making a difference “with faith, with dedication and integrity.”
“I’m planning on actually using everything that God has given me, every opportunity to show the world that I care,” he says. “I want to be remembered as a sign of hope for people.”
As the Hummer approaches his hometown, Martinez says that, in 1999, officials there offered to name one of the main boulevards after him. He refused, saying he wanted to honor his older brother Ramon and all the other baseball players who paved the way for him. So they named the street the Boulevard of Baseball instead.
Martinez is in his element now. Here is where he ran, mile after mile, looking for the family cow. Over here is where he still sits today in the shade with an old man in an old chair, just chilling out. Here is where he threw rocks to pinpoint his control. He laughs when he recalls how he improvised because he didn’t have enough money for a ball.
“I played with oranges, even my sister’s doll’s head, I used as a ball,” he says. “Yeah, they wanted to kick my butt, but it was too late.”
The shack he lived in is long gone, but the famous mango tree remains. During the 2004 AL Championship Series against the Yankees, Martinez said he didn’t mind having 60,000 fans taunt him, because 15 years earlier, he was sitting under a mango tree without 50 cents for bus fare.
Martinez wouldn’t just sit under the tree, he would climb it when his parents would argue over trying to make ends meet. It got so bad he developed a heart murmur from the stress. He cried under that mango tree, but he dreamed there, too. Sometimes the mango trees dropped their fruit right on his shack, like manna from heaven.
“The mango tree seems to be the most loyal friend that held our secrets, secrets about my growing up,” says Martinez. “It’s got to be over 100 years old.”
“That’s how everything started — a skinny kid carrying Ramon’s bag,” he says. “One day Ramon was messing around, put the gun on me, and I was throwing 78-80.”
The Dodgers were interested; they eventually signed Pedro, and he gave Ramon his signing bonus.
The rest is history.
When he was stalled in the minors with the Dodgers, Martinez says, he was offered steroids. He admits he was tempted.
“Every other guy that was taller and more good-looking got called up,” he says. “It seemed like it was going to take forever. That if I had a better body or added something to my body . . .
“But I heard the aftereffects — that your nipples might grow or you would lose something in your manhood. I just chose not to and I stayed like that.”
The next stop on the Pedro Tour is a sprawling tract of land where a three-story yellow schoolhouse was built so kids didn’t have to travel 6 miles to learn, as Martinez did. The future Hall of Famer also wants to build a mini-Fenway Park here someday soon.
“Can you see it?” he asks, looking over an empty field where three kids searched for a lost ball. “Everyone will come.”
Nearby, Pedro and Ramon have built a compound of guest houses, including a swimming pool where they let foundation children practice for swim meets.
“I built all those houses for the immediate family, so they can all be together,” he says. “Family, family, family.”
But don’t ask Martinez about his family. He gives up very little information on them.
“I have three boys and a girl, but I never talk about my family because I am the one that you want to know about,” he says. “I protect them. You see so many crazy things.”
As popular as he is, his wife is even more popular, he says.
“She’s co-president, she’s the director, she’s Mom here,” he says. “You watch when she goes in there. She’s Mom and I’m Papa.”
When the gates to the Pedro Martinez and Brothers Foundation open, Pedro is greeted warmly. But when Carolina Martinez arrives, she is greeted wildly by the 355 children in attendance, ages 5 to 15. They all wear yellow T-shirts that say, “Hay poder en aprender,” or “There is power in learning.”
“This is the holy land for them, because nobody is allowed to come in from the outside,” says Martinez. “They go home with a fresh mind.
“That’s the main reason, to give the kids a legitimate opportunity to become better citizens. To see them go home happy and clean.”
He has also built 30-40 homes and two churches in his hometown. The foundation also gives out grants. One of the first ones went to Pedro’s future wife.
“It’s good for people to know I’m a recipient of the foundation,” says Carolina Martinez, who grew up nearby. She got a scholarship, played volleyball, and met Pedro when she was a sophomore at Boston College in 1998.
“We actually met as I was going to Boston to do all my paperwork,” she says. “After the foundation, we started to be friends and one step led to another.”
Carolina got her master’s in journalism and worked for ESPN Deportes covering the winter baseball leagues. But after her marriage to Martinez in 2005, she eventually devoted herself full time to the foundation.
She wants to start a “Sponsor a Kid” program from Boston to help expand their work to four locations in the Dominican Republic.
“We want to interact with Dominican kids in Boston,” she says. “We want to be able to bring kids from Boston here. Have them spend some time with Pedro.”
Augusto Nicolas Martinez Placido, who also attended the Lindos Suenos program, grew up here and is a longtime foundation member.
“It has been a second home for me,” he says. “It’s taught me to value yourself and to bring other youth along so they don’t get lost. Pedro Martinez is a very, very, very great man. Very, very humble. He always extends his hand.”
Martinez shakes off the praise quicker than he dispatched Yankees coach Don Zimmer in the 2003 ALCS.
“I realized we needed to open something so that the kids could have an opportunity to find a way out,” he says. “Not all of these kids are going to be baseball players.
“Everybody smiles when they see me — that’s what’s important to me.”